Thursday, September 23, 2010

The plight of the waterfowl in the Bitumen Tailings Ponds

This is an image of a bird killed by an oil spill. (

Tailings ponds are created when bitumen is extracted from the ground through the process of open pit mining. Bitumen is a semi solid or solid form of petroleum which is highly sought after by energy companies. Hot water is poured on the bitumen and sand which separates the two substances. The run-off sand is then channeled into a tailings pond. This method does leave some residual hydrocarbons in the run-off water meaning tailings ponds do contain hydrocarbons. The larger the need for energy provokes bitumen to be mined faster and more tailings ponds to be created.

Northeastern Alberta contains bitumen underneath much of its soil and has many companies extracting it. As of November 2009, tailings ponds account for 120 km² of the landscape north of Fort McMurray in the lower Athabaska River shed. This just so happens to be part of a major migration route that millions of birds fly over each year. Migrating waterfowl need places to land and rest or to spend the night. The area of natural water bodies in this area is only 84.9 km² which is much less than the 120 km² of tailings ponds. This means that many birds land in tailings ponds and have the potential to become oiled and potential die. Each company is responsible for putting bird deterrents in place around their tailings ponds. Each company is also responsible for keeping a record of how many birds die per square kilometer of tailings pond per year and they must report this to the government of Canada.

Kevin P. Timoney conducted a study trying to come up with a fair estimate of how many birds die every year due to tailings ponds (death per square kilometer). His findings, “ANNUAL BIRD MORTALITY IN THE BITUMEN TAILINGS PONDS IN NORTHEASTERN ALBERTA, CANADA”, was published The Wilson Journal of Ornithology. This paper was then used as a primary source for an article in the Toronto Sun entitled “Birds dying in oilsands at 30 times the rate reported, says study” by Bob Weber. This blog post will try to point out some differences and similarities between the primary paper by Kevin P. Timoney and the secondary news article by Bob Weber.

Claims made by Bob Weber in “Birds dying in oilsands at 30 times the rate reported, says study” (Toronto star, sept 07, 2010) were that “The 14-year median, including raptors, songbirds, shorebirds and gulls, is 1,973 deaths every year.” (Weber) Neither of these statements were made in the primary source for the article. In the primary source Kevin P. Timoney explains his three possible estimates of how many bird mortalities occur due to the tailings ponds in Northeastern Alberta. Timoney obtained the estimates by extrapolating data gathered from the shoreline of the tailings ponds and from the government reports to form a low, a medium and a high estimate of how many bird mortalities occur due to tailings ponds every year. The news article stated the medium estimate to be the conclusion of the paper. This was clearly not the case in the primary source.

The secondary news article stated that the estimates have the possibility of error due to the fact that it “didn’t account for birds that landed and were oiled at night or that simply sank under the surface of the ponds.” (Weber). This was one of the primary paper’s four major sources of error. One of the sources of error not included in the secondary news article was that there was no data collected for the months of November to April. During these months the natural waterways remain frozen but “large areas of tailings ponds remain unfrozen due to addition of warm tailings.” (Timoney) If data was to be collected during this time period it would elevate the estimated number of deaths every year giving us a more accurate representation.

The second source of error, unstated in the secondary news article, is that not much is known as to what the rate of survival is when a bird gets “oiled”. In the study “we assumed a mortality rate of 80 to 90% for birds that came in contact with oil.” (Timoney). This could vary from pond to pond as the percentage of hydrocarbons at each site would differ and different species may have higher or lower mortality rates after being oiled. Shorebirds may not be exposed to as much oil as birds that would land in the middle of the pond.

The third source of error was data was not gathered at every single tailings pond in the area. The estimates of bird deaths were based on data gathered at only some of the total tailings pond. These ponds are assumed to be representative of all of the tailings ponds in the area with regards to landings and mortalities. These ponds differed in size and location but there is still a likely chance that some could be more popular than others.

Both the primary paper and the secondary news article mentioned the mass mortality event at a Syncrude tailings pond. “A migratory waterfowl mortality event at the Syncrude Aurora North tailings pond occurred in April 2008 at which 1,606 dead waterfowl were later found” (Timoney). The end mortality result was 162 birds/km². This is considered to be a mass mortality event. Mass mortality events occur randomly occasionally brought on by storms or headwinds.

Bothe the primary and secondary sources agreed this will most likely not have a major impact on the species as millions of birds pass over unharmed every year. There is however a chance that endangered species such as the whooping crane could face serious problems if a mass mortality event were to take place. The final few paragraphs of the primary paper gave possible solutions to minimize and possibly avoid bird deaths within tailings ponds. Possible solutions included advanced bird deterrents and compensation ponds. The possible solutions were never given in the secondary article. The secondary article inquired government officials why action against bird deaths were not being taken.

Secondary and primary sources display the same information just in different ways. A primary source looks to convey as much information about the subject or study as possible and give explanations and data to back up the conclusion of the article or paper. The primary source described in this blog gave significant background information, description of methods and results, and an interesting discussion section. It gave mountains of data and explanations to back up the final conclusion. The secondary source takes the information described in the primary source and creates a short summarized version of it for the general public. A secondary source only summarizes the primary source and cannot fully touch on everything mentioned in the original article.

Overall the secondary news article and primary paper were both representative of classic primary and secondary sources. Both gave the information to the reader in organized fashions and were very informative. The secondary source described in this blog made occasional assumptions from the data and was biased but did a very good job of collecting outside information such as interviews with government officials. Overall the secondary source did an admiral job of representing the vast amount of information presented in the primary paper.


Timoney, Kevin and Roncini, Robert. “Annual Bird Mortality in the Bitumen Tailing Ponds in Northeastern Alberta, Canada.” Wilson Journal of Ornithology 122 (2010): 569-576. Web. 19 Sept. 2010.

Weber, Bob. “Birds dying in oilsands at 30 times the rate repoted, says study.” Toronto Star. 7 Sept. 2010. Web. 19 Sept. 2010.

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